Bruce Reilly buckles his Hello Kitty helmet strap outside New Orleans Police Department headquarters. It's 8 a.m. and he's joining 50 bicyclists for a ride through the state to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, nearly 200 miles away. Reilly's on a Gary Fisher mountain bike he bought via Craigslist. He just applied his New Orleans Pelicans season ticket sticker to the frame.
It's the fifth anniversary ride for NOLA to Angola, which makes the three-day journey to the prison to raise money for a bus program that transports Orleans and Jefferson parish families of incarcerated people to five state prisons at no cost.
"There's a lot of family members, lawyers and investigators who routinely have to drive long distances to maintain contact with their client or loved one," says Reilly, deputy director of the advocacy organization Voice of the Ex-Offender, which is made up of formerly incarcerated people. "What makes it so huge is obviously people having contact with their loved ones, whether they be residents in New Orleans having contact with loved ones shipped upstate, or vice versa. It's huge. It's the biggest, most important part of re-entry."
Leo Jackson, director of the Cornerstone Builders' bus project, sends his well wishes to the group. "They got good hearts," he says, shaking hands with riders as they check the air in their tires and strap in their saddlebags.
Noelle Deltufo, a client advocate for the Orleans Public Defenders, is riding with NOLA to Angola for the fifth time.
"I'd seen how difficult it is for people to do visitation just in Orleans Parish," she says. "When somebody is sentenced hundreds of miles away, it's even more significant that they can't make the visit."
New Orleans City Council President Jason Williams thanks the riders "for sacrificing your legs, your days, your energy."
"The city represents the last connection to family — a child growing without a parent, parents living and surviving without the kids they raise," Williams tells Gambit. "NOLA to Angola is the only vein to that heart. ... We're a state and a town of over-incarceration. It may never be fixed on a statewide level. Until then we have to rely on these folks."
The Cornerstone office occupies a small room inside the Catholic Charities building on Howard Avenue. Jackson's spare cubicle holds two laptops and not much else.
"My answering service is full," he says. "It's a one-man team: me. I provide the information to the inmates and no one is a better advocate of a bus trip than the inmates, because they want the family to come up. They get that information out instantly. ... Once the word gets out among family members at the prisons, they call. 'When's your next bus?'"
Jackson was 27 when he entered Angola in 1974 on charges stemming from heroin distribution. In 2006, he was pardoned by then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco. He served 32 years.
In 2000, Jackson earned a theology degree through Baptist Theological Seminary and became a chaplain's assistant after transferring to Dixon Correctional Institute in 2002. After his release, Jackson worked with the ministry at Marrero's Second Zion Baptist Church and directed the church's Cops and Clergy program, administered through community black churches and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office. It helps formerly incarcerated people get job referrals and other re-entry help.
"I wanted to give back," Jackson says. "It struck me in conversation with another guy in terms of transportation — someone had asked me if I knew anyone who could bring folks to penitentiaries. ... Simultaneously I thought about paying for it. Initially it wasn't feasible. I didn't have the funds to pay for it, not even one bus."
After meeting Cornerstone Director Ronnie Moore, Jackson arranged the first bus in 2007, sending 50 people to Louisiana Transitional Center for Women in Tallulah. He modeled the program after California's Get on the Bus, which provides free transportation to children of incarcerated people and caregivers a few times a year. Knowing many families from Orleans and Jefferson parishes have family members in prisons throughout the state, Jackson wanted to make trips at least once a month.
The founders of what was to become NOLA to Angola met Jackson at a speaking event at Loyola University and asked if they could get involved. In the last five years, the group has raised more than $85,000 for Cornerstone.
Families can call the Cornerstone office and make a reservation; the buses visit Angola, Dixon, the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, Avoyelles Correctional Center and Rayburn Correctional Center more than a dozen times a year. It costs $1,000 to rent each bus, plus fuel and other expenses. Cornerstone also is supported by Second Zion Baptist Church and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, but NOLA to Angola provides stability
"You just make a phone call, make a reservation, and come out," Jackson says. "They're able to take that journey in comfort and safety. They get to bring the family. All the family members get to take that journey, and it relieves them from all the costs of travel. They always remind me how convenient it is to just get on the bus."
Ronald Davis visits his brother-in-law at Avoyelles Correctional Center — nearly 200 miles from New Orleans, 400 miles round trip — three times a year. "We usually go February, June and October," he says. "We just have to do our best to let him know we love and support him despite whatever mistake he made."
Davis and his family have used the Cornerstone bus since 2012. His brother-in-law is up for parole next year.
"It's been a tremendous blessing not only to me and my wife but the rest of the wives and husbands and sisters and brothers and nieces and nephews that visit their loved ones — especially those without transportation or that don't have any way of visiting," he says. "You don't have to be concerned about having to drive — it's an additional expense you may not have. ... To know that someone loves you and is concerned about you enough to take the weekend and come and see you, it's a blessing."
Nearly 38,000 people are incarcerated in Louisiana, according to the Louisiana Department of Corrections. Louisiana's notoriously high incarceration rate — as of 2013, more than double the national average (847 per 100,000 people) — costs the state $350 million a year. Incarceration also is costly for inmates and their families, who must pay legal fees, bills, housing, care packages, phone calls and gas and transportation to visit incarcerated family members, which for New Orleans families could mean traveling as far as 800 miles round trip.
Going to prison is expensive — for taxpayers and families of the incarcerated. Following a family member's incarceration, the average debt incurred among the family was $13,607, according to a September 2015 report from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together and Research Action Design. The report surveyed more than 700 people in prison, their family members, employers and people impacted by family members' incarceration. Following a relative's conviction, more than half of the respondents making less than $15,000 a year were unable to pay for court costs.
Sixty-five percent of families with incarcerated family members struggled with basic living expenses, and nearly half had trouble getting regular access to food and housing.
"The whole family becomes incarcerated," Jackson says. "Their lives are put on hold. ... All the family is focused on that person who's not there. They've got to spend their time, their energy, concerns about legal issues — [the prisoner] becomes another burden on the family and not an asset. ... When a breadwinner in the family suddenly is taken from the family, it leaves a void — not only in terms of finances, but in security, in counsel. The dad always has the answer to the problems and struggles of the family. When that communication is broken, there is no communication. That family has a missing link."
An incarcerated family member also loses his or her most valuable asset: a connection to the "outside." But incarcerated people with more contact with their families are less likely to return to prison after their release, according to a 2012 report from the Vera Institute of Justice, among other similar reports. During a prison visit, inmates can have lunch with their families, get updates on their neighborhood and loved ones — briefly, but regularly, uniting the family to prepare for the inmate's reintroduction to the home, the workforce and life outside prison walls.
"The support system that naturally develops by the family is intact," Jackson says. "When he's released from prison, he just reassembles back into the family. He doesn't have to re-establish anything. Becoming a unit again and reassembling into a family again can sometimes be an issue when you haven't communicated in four or five years and you're home and you're searching for your role in the family. That's not always automatic."
Cornerstone also helps inmates who are eligible for parole land a job through its Re-Entry 72 program. Most parole conditions require inmates have a job upon their release. Jackson — with help from Orleans and Jefferson parish sheriff's offices — hires them for short-term work.
"It's not permanent, but that's usually enough to allow them to be released," Jackson says. "It provides them leverage to search around, fill out applications, do the things necessary to make preparations to transition."
Of the formerly incarcerated people who responded to the Ella Baker Center survey, 67 percent were unemployed or underemployed five years after their release. Fewer than 2 percent of Re-Entry 72 participants have returned to prison since it started in 2011. It hires about 60 people each year at $8 an hour for 120 hours.
"The first 72 hours (after release) are the most critical time," he says. "During that period, you've got to start applying for identification, Social Security — but through our process, you don't need that. You get that while you're working."
NOLA to Angola raised more than $30,000 in 2015, more than its first two rides combined. Katie Hunter-Lowrey, who has helped organize NOLA to Angola rides since 2012, says this year's NOLA to Angola fundraising "means at least two buses every month, more buses around the holidays."
Each rider is "sponsored," whether receiving donations from friends for each mile biked, or from a night's worth of tips from working at a restaurant or bar. The minimum each rider must raise is $250. "Most people exceed that by far," Hunter-Lowrey says. NOLA to Angola provides three meals a day, snacks, water, mechanics and camping over the three-day trip. There also are guest lectures on topics from environmental racism to the prison-industrial complex.
"If we want to really create a world in which recidivism rates are lower, where communities can be healthy and not ripped apart by such a high number of people in prison, I think folks need to be able to see each other face to face and have that contact a lot of us take for granted," Hunter-Lowrey says.
In October, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) agreed to slash prices for prison phone calls, forcing phone companies to end price gouging for calls made in state and federal prisons. Some calls from U.S. prisons once cost up to $14 a minute, a bill that fell on families already burdened by the cost of their loved one's incarceration. The FCC capped all local and long-distance calls from state and federal prisons at 11 cents per minute.
An Oct. 22 statement from the FCC read, "Reducing the cost of these calls measurably increases the amount of contact between inmates and their loved ones, making an important contribution to the criminal justice reforms sweeping the nation."
"Getting a phone call is nice, but getting an in-person visit is a totally different feeling and vibe," Hunter-Lowrey says. "Especially kids, this is affecting them in ways you don't really know unless you grow up with that. ... We know statistically that largely the people in prison are black and poor. You're talking about communities that are already disenfranchised, then to create more barriers through not providing a way for folks to see each other... We're just a tiny drop in an attempt to bridge that gap."
At the NOLA to Angola launch near Tulane Avenue and Broad Street, 50 bicyclists file out onto a side street, cheered on by friends and family. Some riders are dressed in full Spandex, others in cut-off jean shorts and T-shirts.
"We have people who take the time to train and people don't — it's OK. There's a lot of speed preferences and skill levels on the ride," Hunter-Lowrey says. "If you can ride a bike, you can do it."